Rani Burnat spends every Friday afternoon engulfed in tear gas. For the past nine years, his hometown of Bil’in, a small Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank, has held weekly demonstrations against the Israeli occupation, and Burnat photographs the clashes from his battered wheelchair.
Friday protests in the West Bank are hardly unique to Bil’in. The village of Nabi Saleh protests against the seizure of its only water source by an illegal Israeli settlement nearby, while people in Kufr Qaddoum protest Israel’s blockade of its main road to the nearby city of Nablus. Like Bil’in, residents of the villages of Al-Walaja and Ni’lin protest against Israel’s separation wall, which runs through their land.
Media outlets don't cover these protests, so people like Burnat have stepped in and taken on the role of citizen journalist for their communities. With no formal training, they document the struggles of their fellow villagers, filming and photographing clashes and posting what they record online.
“My hope is that we will become liberated and then we will throw all the cameras away,” Burnat tells VICE News. “But something tells me the occupation won’t end, and I will continue fighting through my camera."
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Burnat was part of the Palestinian resistance movement long before he started taking photos. On the first day of the second intifada in 2000, he was shot in the neck by an Israeli sniper while protesting the Israeli occupation on the streets of Ramallah.
“They declared me a martyr," Burnat says. "The Palestinian media reported me as killed because my injuries were so bad that they assumed I would die. The next day, I was still alive and they moved me from the hospital in Ramallah to a hospital in Jordan. I spent six months in the Jordanian hospital, three of them in a coma.”
Burnat photographs a protester in Bil'in. Photo by Sheren Khalel
Burnat is now paralyzed from the chest down. He is confined to a wheelchair, has lost much of his ability to speak, and has normal motor function in only one hand. He wanted to continue participating in the resistance, but he needed to find another way to do it.
When Bil’in began its Friday protests, he found it.
“The army started to confiscate land and properties in Bil’in to begin building the separation wall,” he says. “It was then that I decided to be a photographer.”
His photography helped the village win a rare victory: After six years of demonstrating every Friday, Bil'in succeeded in changing the path of the wall, reclaiming half of the village's land that had been taken. Protests continue in hopes of reclaiming the rest.
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Burnat says he’s been shot with rubber-coated bullets and tear-gas canisters more than 10 times since he was confined to his wheelchair. Because he has no feeling from the chest down, he must check his body after every protest in case he's been shot without realizing it.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Palestinian journalists like Burnat are commonly targeted by soldiers, even though they often wear clothing identifying themselves as press.
“There is no question that Palestinian journalists are more at risk of arrest, harassment, or you name it than an international journalist,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior researcher at HRW. “And they are much more likely to be subjected to Israeli military law rather than civil law.”
Bilal Tamimi, a village journalist in Nabi Saleh, has experienced this first hand. Like his fellow journalists around the occupied West Bank, he is not accredited with any media organization, which means no company advocates on his behalf when he is arrested for filming soldiers — which is actually legal under Israeli law — and he and his family are responsible for posting bail and paying any fines or hospital bills that result from his work.
Tamimi says he's been arrested four times, and has been beaten on several occasions. His family endures Israeli military raids in the middle of the night so often that his teenage children sleep with their shoes on.
“They target me with tear gas canisters and stun grenades, and many times they’ve pushed me and beat me to keep me away,” Tamimi says. “But of course I believe that what I am doing for the village here is very important and that I should stay close to [the soldiers] so I can document everything.”
Al-Qaddoumi covers protests in Kufr Qaddoum. Photo by Sheren Khalel
While Bil’in’s popular resistance got results, Tamimi’s village of Nabi Saleh has gotten attention. It's been the focus of a New York Times Magazine story and the documentary Thank God It’s Friday, and it has hosted political figures from around the world.
Many in the town credit its notoriety to Tamimi and the small team of volunteers he has gathered under the umbrella of the Tamimi Press.
“Before in Nabi Saleh, if you googled us you would find just information on the prophet Saleh, because Nabi means prophet in Arabic," Tamimi tells us. "But now if you google Nabi Saleh you will find millions and millions of films and reports, pictures, articles — everything."
“Tamimi Press is just incredible — they have an entire do-it-yourself news service that they created themselves to get information out,” Van Esveld tells VICE News. “They [village journalists] often have the first information on something that is going on, which is extremely important. They have access to witnesses, they have stories told direct from the ground, information that has not been filtered through spokespeople.”
In 2011, the small village of Kufr Qaddoum, nestled between hills in the north West Bank and surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements, was cut off from the city of Nablus — and the jobs it provided to many Kufr Qaddoum residents — when the Israeli army set up a blockade on the road out of the village. Residents protested, but there was almost no media coverage. Kamaal al-Qaddoumi was one of the villagers affected, and he found himself taking on the mantle of unofficial village photographer.
Just a typical Friday for Burnat. Photo by Sheren Khalel
“I started the same year the protests here started," he says. "I noticed there was no media, nobody cared about what was happening in Kufr Qaddoum. So I started to take pictures and put them on the Internet to let people see."
Like Burnat and Tamimi, Quddoumi believes his role is to show the world what's happening in his small area of the occupied West Bank. But the men are more than just documentarians. For starters, footage village journalists shoot is frequently used in court to get Palestinian protestors released from detention after being wrongfully arrested. In addition, the presence of their cameras during clashes can often protect their fellow villagers from increased army backlash.
That's one reason why the Israeli human rights group B'tselem launched its Camera Project to provide free cameras and advice to budding citizen journalists in the Occupied Territories. Tamimi, who was one of the project's first recipients, says the presence of cameras in Nabi Saleh makes soldiers think twice about how much force they use.
“If they know that there will not be a punishment or that no one will know about what they are doing because there are no cameras, they will be very tough with the people, and they would be much worse at demonstrations — and all the time really,” Tamimi says.
While the Coalition for the Protection of Journalists tells VICE News that they consider Burnat, Tamimi, Qaddoumi and others like them journalists, all three seem torn between the identities of journalist and protestor. Tamimi proudly wears a high-visibility vest which, rather than having the word Press emblazoned on it, states: We will refuse to stay silent.
“Everybody has their own role in the resistance," Quddoumi says. "Some people throw stones, some people take video, some people take pictures, some people help with medical things. What they do is for Palestine. Me taking pictures is like the same as another throwing stones."